White House sounds retreat from Obama guidelines on school discipline

The White House today released the Federal Commission on School Safety report, which was commissioned by President Donald Trump in the aftermath of the school shooting in Parkland, Fla.

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The White House today released the Federal Commission on School Safety report, which was commissioned by President Donald Trump in the aftermath of the school shooting in Parkland, Fla.

Many education advocacy groups condemned the Federal Commission on School Safety’s recommendation today to revoke an Obama-era guidance calling on schools to address race-based disparities in discipline.

Advocates contend the final report of the commission, which was chaired by Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos, represents a step backward in the effort to narrow racial disparities in school discipline and keep students safe.

But DeVos maintains the commission focused on giving schools information about best practices rather than more edicts.

“Each of us has an important role to play in keeping our students safe while at school,” said DeVos in a statement. “Through the commission’s work, it has become even clearer there is no single policy that will make our schools safer. What will work for schools in Montana will be different than what will work for schools in Manhattan. With that in mind, this report provides a wide-ranging menu of best practices and resources that all state, community, and school leaders should consider while developing school safety plans and procedures that will work for their students and teachers.”

Advocates are also disappointed the commission’s recommendations gloss over the role of guns in school shootings. The Trump White House launched the commission in the wake of the Parkland, Fl., school shooting in which 17 students and staff members were killed and 17 others injured. While the report reviews firearms data and policies, it does not call for any changes in U.S. gun laws. It does sanction arming teachers, if there is local community support and adequate training.

“It’s been clear from the beginning that this sham commission never intended to find real solutions to curb gun violence in our nation’s schools. The Trump-DeVos administration has long pushed for more guns in schools by arming teachers, even refusing to rule out the use of federal education funds to buy guns for teachers. Prioritizing hardening schools over evidence-backed strategies that foster healthy and safe learning environments is just the latest example of this administration putting special interests, such as the gun lobby, before the public,” said Scott Sargrad, managing director of K-12 Education Policy at the Center for American Progress.

The rebuke of the Obama guidelines is couched as a pro teacher measure.

The report states, “Maintaining order in the classroom is a key to keeping schools safe. Teachers are best positioned to identify and address disorderly conduct. However, guidance issued by the prior Administration advocated a federal solution that undercut the ability of local officials to address the impact of disciplinary matters on school safety. The guidance also relies on a dubious reading of federal law. The guidance should be rescinded and information about resources and best practices for improving school climate and learning outcomes should be developed for schools and school districts.”

The 2014 federal guidelines on school discipline and race built on the multiple studies showing black students earn more severe consequences even when they commit the exact same offense as white students.  While all schools see a wide range of adolescent misbehavior, discipline data vary dramatically. Some schools resort to suspensions much quicker than others and are more likely to dole out the most severe punishments to minority students.

The Obama administration sought to reduce suspensions since suspended students are less likely to graduate on time and more likely to be suspended again. They are also more likely to repeat a grade, drop out, and become involved in the juvenile justice system.

Here is what the American Educational Research Association said about the commission’s recommendation to undo the federal discipline guidelines:

The recommendation ignores the overwhelming body of scientific evidence that racial minorities are disciplined more frequently and more harshly than is warranted by their behavior in schools. Unnecessary suspensions and expulsions, rooted in misunderstanding and implicit and explicit bias, have damaging lifelong consequences for students, communities, and the entire country.

Education researchers have long studied disparities in school discipline, the factors behind them, and their implications for students and schools. AERA's journals regularly publish research on the topic and in April 2017 the association held a major public lecture that addressed school discipline disparities. The science is clear that racial discipline gaps exist, cannot be explained by differences in student behavior alone, and are roadblocks to educational opportunity and equity.

This body of research evidence is also supported by a report released by the Government Accountability Office in March 2018 that found that "black students, boys, and students with disabilities were disproportionately disciplined (e.g., suspensions and expulsions) in K-12 public schools," based on its analysis of Education Department national civil rights data for the 2013-14 school year.

The GAO report also noted: "Research has shown that students who experience discipline that removes them from the classroom are more likely to repeat a grade, drop out of school, and become involved in the juvenile justice system. Studies have shown this can result in decreased earning potential and added costs to society, such as incarceration and lost tax revenue."

AERA and education researchers are deeply committed to making school safety a priority and will continue to study the root causes of school violence and ways to foster positive school climate, work with school leaders to develop and assess interventions, provide resources on school safety for educators and policymakers, and speak out when the nation's schools are targets of acts of violence.

The nation's schools need to foster safe, supportive environments for all students, using practices and procedures that rely on evidence and data. The commission's recommendation, which ignores the body of scientific evidence, is deeply disappointing and represents a step backward.